13 January 2019

Dead fish

Regular readers can take comfort in my poor record of prognostication, but for the longest time I had assumed that the NSW election would have something for everyone: a nail-biter, with the Libs losing a few marginals, the Nats losing one or two seats to the Greens and/or ShooFiFa, but basically the government would be returned for its inevitable final term (because the tensions between Liberal moderates and conservatives, now relatively mild, will only intensify as the spoils of office contract), and new Opposition Leader Michael Daley would need only to hold steady and the 2023 election would be his.

Not so. The Coalition can't win the NSW election, and will probably be the first Australian government to lose office on account of climate change.

And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong

Stories like this followed a couple of guys posting on Facebook about algae and dead fish in the Menindee Lakes. The Menindee Lakes are part of the vast Murray-Darling river system that sustains farming in much of eastern Australia, toward the end of the long meander of the Darling River and its tributaries across NSW. Queensland bears some responsibility for the state of the river, but by this point the state should have more to show for any serious remediation efforts than it does today.

Remember this story when traditional media grizzle about Facebook: it wasn't intrepid journos who hunted down this story, people on social media handed it to them. Facebook can identify the existence of controversy, but not even the ABC (and no other supposedly professional traditional media outlet either) can determine who is responsible for what. The press gallery, so focused on The Big Issues and Liberal-Labor #balance, have missed this issue and its significance entirely. There will be more stories like this. Traditional media is already in symbiosis with social media, and you don't need those strangely ineffable qualities of journalism to re-up something you found on Facebook.

Stories like that stay in the mind far longer than the story-of-the-day hits that media people (both journalists and media strategists within political parties) consider good enough for the likes of us. There is genuinely something wrong with policy, with the government that produced it, that leads to such an outcome. There is something wrong when a whole town relies on charity to receive this life-or-death resource. This mining licence did not have to be renewed before March, or at all really.

The low flow that has led to the algal bloom and deoxygenation of the water across much of the river has disadvantaged not only large but small landholders in NSW, as well as country towns full of people indirectly linked to agriculture. This cannot be smoothed over, or propagandised away. A government that acts, through commission or omission, to bring about this state of affairs is not competent and can make no strong case for re-election.

It should go without saying that water underpins basic life in rural Australia. Government that has let infrastructure deteriorate, that has overestimated the extent normal flows are possible given lax inspection regimes and special deals to thirsty mates, is incompetent in ways that simply defeats any media/electoral strategy. Water is hardly a new issue in the politics of NSW, but this is the first election in a century where the Nationals (including their previous incarnations, Country Party etc.) simply aren't on it.

NSW Water Resources Minister Niall Blair has operated on water flow assumptions that take no account of climate change. He cannot claim to have been badly informed by clumsy bureaucrats, as the Coalition at both state and federal level: firstly, because he should have been (seen to be) across this issue well before now, and secondly because the Coalition at all levels of government has actively pretended climate change is a culture war front only, and not a factor in hands-on operations of government. Whimpering about lack of water simply isn't good enough because the water that was available has been squandered; this would continue even if rains doubled, or halved. His decision not to meet with Menindee locals who had waited to see him was dumb, and I will fight any media strategist who quibbles with that assessment. Blair deserves all the respect due to a man who has painted himself into a corner and who will soon be replaced.

Consider this map. It not only shows the state electorates of non-metropolitan NSW, it shows all the seats currently held by the Nationals. It also shows the state's natural watercourses. None of those seats is safe for the Nationals. None of those seats which they do not hold today (e.g. Orange, Wagga Wagga, Goulburn, even Ballina) is realistically within their grasp on 23 March.

The state director of the Nationals, Ross Cadell, is one of the best campaigners in Australian politics. He is down to earth but also highly sophisticated in all the dark arts of campaigning, and his dedication and skill in excising a Nazi cell from the Young Nationals is commendable. The fate of the NSW Nationals should be regarded as being despite his best efforts rather than because of them. If the Nationals hold half the NSW Legislative Assembly seats in 2019 that they won in 2015, it will be a massive success attributable largely to Cadell.

The Nationals are the weaker link in the NSW Coalition. Usually it's the Liberals who wax and wane with fickle urban seats, who get the big donations and have the more substantial ground game, who lead Coalition strategy overall and who therefore largely determine whether or not the Coalition governs the state, while the Nats simply hold their ground. Not this time, and it's why 2019 is different to your standard pendulum-swing job against the ALP.

The observer effect

The observer effect is a scientific theory that simply observing a situation or phenomenon changes the thing being observed.

In politics, media coverage can change a political situation, and the perceived need to respond to that coverage expands and even alters the political response to that situation. This section applies to both the coming NSW election, and for the coming federal election in regional NSW and beyond.

To be slightly fair to the press gallery (don't worry, I'll pass quickly over this) it is understandable that they should simply focus on overall polls and poo-pooh the idea that the Nationals are in trouble, given their strong vote at the last election. The decline of local journalism means there are no readily available means of judging whether or not a particular seat will not be the standard Nationals-Labor two-party-preferred runoff with the former trouncing the latter. If there is some local insurgency here or there, where's the proof? Show me the data! Give me some names!

When big, urban media companies took over small regional operations there were assurances that local issues would still be covered; those assurances are largely void. The lack of local media now means that national media are largely flying blind on local issues, and relying on their contacts in major parties who have every incentive to draw attention away from unfavourable results. It will mean, once again, that journalists using traditional methods will report on the election in ways that don't prepare voters for what is to happen after the election.

Local communities still have stalwart members involved for many years in local business, sporting, landcare and other community organisations. Those people will have been approached by the major parties because of their high reputations and name recognition, and for those same reasons the stalwarts will knock them back. The Nationals are so on the nose that such people will be under intense pressure to stand as independents, or as candidates for parties other than the Nationals, or even (where they are particularly desperate) by the Nationals themselves. The time is drawing near for such people to make up their minds.

Stalwart members of local communities have much to lose from a tilt at parliament. Being seen to reach beyond your grasp is seen as commendable among seasoned political operatives (our current PM is prominent, but far from the only, proof of this). In regional communities it can lead to loss of reputation: where the business community is intertwined with the Nationals, this can damage people economically and socially. Getting ahead of oneself is poison in regional Australia. While there are those who jeer at the taxpayer-funded sexual incontinence of Barnaby Joyce or Andrew Broad, there are others who feel sorry for them and despise piling-on.

The time is fast approaching for candidates to declare themselves, raise money, and execute a successful election strategy. Political journalists used to dealing with established political machines underestimate how hard it is to build one from scratch. Just as you don't quickly knock up a fully-functioning hospital if you become seriously ill, so too you don't just build a political operation just because you turned the tap one day and nothing came out. Part of the process these people are taking toward making up their mind to run involves not engaging the media until they have a declaration to make. Journalists and pollsters understandably omit those they do not know to be candidates. Both place undue emphasis on the results of the (very different) last election, so when they look for what's different now, they start from a long way behind.

After everything that's happened, there are still hard-working, well-regarded Nationals MPs. The trick for those to oppose them will be to prise their hands off the levers of parliamentary representation firmly, gently, and with sympathy. Note how Cathy McGowan went after Sophie Mirabella in 2013: McGowan could have gone in harder against the widely disliked Mirabella, but it would almost certainly have rebounded on her. Some of the duller journalists assigned to rural seats in the NSW and Federal election will be hunting for argy-bargy, but the smarter candidates won't give it to them and so the journalists concerned will miss the story.

Journalists will absolutely suck at covering the shift away from the Nationals in regional seats. Honourable exception to Gabrielle Chan, but she can't cover every corner of regional NSW or Australia and shouldn't be expected to.

The ingredients of a good message

In the standard narrative of political swings, the Coalition had a massive swing in 2011, then a more modest victory in 2015, and now Gladys Berejiklian should lead the Coalition to a technical win in 2019. I've already said why that won't happen, but I think the people surrounding the Premier aren't doing her - or themselves - any favours.

Labor's Luke Foley showed himself to be a weak leader, long before his sexual incontinence came to light. Berejiklian was entitled to believe she had his measure. By contrast, new Opposition Leader Michael Daley is tough and succinct in putting Labor's case, invoking long-serving former NSW Premier Neville Wran.

In this piece, Deborah Snow and Alexandra Smith cut to the quick:
Berejiklian does have the ingredients of a good message to craft for voters, her closest supporters insist. The state’s budget is in enviable good health, there is $80 billion of infrastructure being built, and NSW has the lowest jobless rate at 4.4 per cent.

But there is a counter narrative building as well: congestion, overdevelopment and the rising cost of living, a perceived tone-deafness on the part of a government too driven by a quest for deals with the private sector, and a lack of coherence around strategy and vision.

The toxic state of the federal party is not helping and Labor’s exploitation of the state government’s commitment to spending $1.5 billion on demolishing and rebuilding Sydney Football Stadium at Moore Park and refurbishing Sydney Olympic Park at Homebush feeds the narrative that Macquarie Street is out of touch with the everyday concerns of ordinary people.
The conventional electoral pendulum for NSW is here. You may as well take the Coalition's most marginal half-dozen seats and give them away, as I said at the top of this post (happy to swap out Monaro for a Liberal bolter higher up the pendulum). Any perception that development policy is driven by developers will endanger Liberal seats like Drummoyne, Ryde, or Parramatta. The Coalition might limit its losses if it can articulate a vision for people involving increased density, but I bet it can't. Nowhere is such a vision in evidence in any particularly high-density community.

This is just poor journalism:
Her latest foray into population policy, suggesting the state should halve its migration intake, is also an “attempt to change gears” a senior Liberal admits. “If there is one person who can say we need less immigration and not look a racist, it has to be Gladys.”
Not just because of the anonymous quote, but this notion deserved more than just transcription and transmission. Gladys Berejiklian could not speak English when she started school. She resisted calls from senior Liberals to change her five-syllable surname. She is the classic immigrant success story, but this policy is an exercise in self-abnegation on her part.

Malcolm Turnbull's public persona was built on two policy areas: climate change mitigation and technology as a force for economic and social good. The Liberal right saddled him with policies that were anti-climate and an NBN policy that impeded technological advancement; they later denied him credit for marriage equality by forcing him through the cumbersome and damaging postal ballot. By abnegating him politically the right made it easier to get rid of Turnbull, and they are doing the same to Berejiklian now. If the Liberals have a leader who vindicates Australia's immigration program, that's an electoral and policy strength rather than something to be traded away for, um, what exactly?
But again, seasoned hands worry about the scatter-gun approach to messaging . “They are focusing on too much,” says one veteran. “Instead of your 20-point plan, just pick five, or six. They do need a game-changer on transport.”
Again with the anonymous quotes. Longterm governments expand their reach across government but often lose sight of the need to constantly justify their own existence against alternatives, particularly when their lived experience of their political opponents and rivals is as partners in compromise.

The way to have changed the game was to have done a ministerial cleanout before Christmas: ministers retiring at this election should have gone, the hapless Andrew Constance should have been punted (and a strong party would have made him justify his future with a suicide mission in Gilmore), replaced by fresh ministers hungry for a fresh go in their own right. This is how longterm governments like Labor in Queensland and South Australia, and the Liberals in WA under Colin Barnett, worked.

But how late it is, too late, for all of that. There are regional Liberals but the Nationals earn their place in the Coalition by keeping across regional issues like water rights. Daryl Maguire failed as MP for Wagga and wasn't replaced by another Liberal because he wasn't focused on anyone in the local area who wasn't a property developer, and now Niall Blair shows that nobody in the Coalition is holding the line on regional issues. The Berejiklian-Barilaro government is exposed in country and city as a government that can't make a case for its re-election, much as happened with the Howard-Vaile government in 2007 and the Fahey-Armstrong state government in 1995.

With the systematic failure of the Nationals though, mere disadvantage and defeat will be manifested as a rout. The Coalition will learn the wrong lessons, and teach them by repetition to the press gallery: never elect moderates, never extol high immigration and multiculturalism, never invest in infrastructure, and jack up the rhetoric on Laura Norder. This will condemn NSW to the political model we see in Queensland, with Labor at the centre and various ratbags (Hanson, Katter et al) orbiting them like space junk. Labor partisans would hope that it returns NSW to Labor's postwar dominance (1941-65), but without the postwar state-building imperative it just seems like some extended you-scratch-my-back exercise.

Mind you, I've been wrong before. The stale pas-de-deux of political campaigning and reporting might throw up something incredible. Maybe it will rain in February such to wash away not only the forecasts of meteorologists but any shortcomings in water management besides.

More likely though is that the NSW government had decided that climate change doesn't affect practical matters like the water supply. When Howard lost in 2007 climate change was still a talking point, and the political system and traditional media of the day allowed for "skepticism" or "agnosticism" on whether it even existed: climate denialism survives in federal politics today, a dozen years after Howard. In 2019 there are consequences for denial, and they include electoral oblivion.

Disclosure: I knew earlier versions of Ross Cadell, Gladys Berejiklian, and Andrew Constance as Young Liberals in the 1990s.